Beautiful, Color Photographs of Paris Taken 100 Years Ago—at the Beginning of World War I & the End of La Belle Époque


It may well be that the major piv­ot points of his­to­ry are only vis­i­ble to those around the bend. For those of us immersed in the present—for all of its deaf­en­ing sirens of vio­lent upheaval—the exact years future gen­er­a­tions will use to mark our epoch remain unclear. But when we look back, cer­tain years stand out above all oth­ers, those that his­to­ri­ans use as arrest­ing­ly sin­gu­lar book titles: 1066: The Year of Con­quest1492: The Year the World Began, 1776. The first such year in the 20th cen­tu­ry gets a par­tic­u­lar­ly grim sub­ti­tle in his­to­ri­an Paul Ham’s 1914: The Year the World End­ed.

It sounds like hyper­bol­ic mar­ket­ing, but that apoc­a­lyp­tic descrip­tion of the effects of World War I comes from some of the most elo­quent voic­es of the age, whether those of Amer­i­can expa­tri­ates like Gertrude Stein or T.S. Eliot, or of Euro­pean sol­dier-poets like Wil­fred Owen or Siegfried Sas­soon.

In France, the hor­rors of the war prompt­ed its sur­vivors to remem­ber the years before it as La Belle Epoque, a phrase—wrote the BBC’s Hugh Schofield in cen­te­nary essay “La Belle Eqoque: Paris 1914,”—that appeared “much lat­er in the cen­tu­ry, when peo­ple who’d lived their gild­ed youths in the pre-war years start­ed look­ing back and rem­i­nisc­ing.”

Moulin Rouge

We’re used to see­ing the peri­od of 1914 in grainy, drea­ry black-and-white, and to see­ing nos­tal­gic cel­e­bra­tions of La Belle Epoque rep­re­sent­ed graph­i­cal­ly by the live­ly full-col­or posters and adver­tise­ments one finds in décor stores. But thanks to the full col­or pho­tos you see here, unearthed a few years ago by Retro­naut, we can see pho­tographs of World War I‑era Paris in full and vibrant color—images of the city one-hun­dred years ago almost just as Parisians saw it at the time. Icons like the Moulin Rouge come to life in bright day­light, above, and light­ing up the night, below.

Moulin Rouge Night

Ear­ly cin­e­ma Aubert Palace, below, in the Grands Boule­vards, shim­mers beau­ti­ful­ly, as does the art-deco light­ing of the Eif­fel Tow­er, fur­ther down.

Aubert Palace

Deco Eiffel

Below, hot air bal­loons hov­er in the enor­mous Grand Palais, and fur­ther down, a pho­to­graph of Notre Dame on a hazy day almost looks like a water­col­or.

Grand Palais

Notre Dame

The pho­tographs were made, writes Messy N Chic, “using Autochrome Lumière tech­nol­o­gy between 1914 and 1918 [a tech­nique devel­oped in 1903 by the Lumière broth­ers, cred­it­ed as the first film­mak­ers]…. [T]here are around 72,000 Autochromes from the time peri­od of places all over the world, includ­ing Paris in its true col­ors.”

Paris Street

Paris Soldiers

Not all of the pho­tographs are of famous archi­tec­tur­al mon­u­ments or nightlife des­ti­na­tions. Very many show ordi­nary street scenes, like those above, one depict­ing a num­ber of bored French sol­diers, pre­sum­ably await­ing deploy­ment.

Paris Street 2

The Paris of 1914 was a Euro­pean cap­i­tal in major tran­si­tion, in more ways than one. “Moder­ni­ty was the mov­ing spir­it,” writes Schofield; “It was the time of the machine. The city’s last horse-drawn omnibus made its way from Saint-Sulpice to La Vil­lette in Jan­u­ary 1913.”

Parisian Coal vendors

Paris Down and Out

Schofield also points out that, like Gild­ed Age New York, “the pub­lic image of Paris was the cre­ation of roman­tic cap­i­tal­ists. The real­i­ty for many was much more wretched… there were entire fam­i­lies liv­ing on the street, and decrepit, over­crowd­ed hous­ing with non-exis­tent san­i­ta­tion.” Moder­ni­ty was leav­ing many behind, class con­flict loomed in France as it erupt­ed in Rus­sia, even as the glob­al cat­a­stro­phe of World War threat­ened French elites and pro­le­tari­at alike, who both served and who both died at very high rates.


You can see many more of these aston­ish­ing­ly beau­ti­ful full-col­or pho­tographs of 1914 Paris—at the end of La Belle Epoque—at Fla­vor­wire, Vin­tage Every­day, Fad­ed & Blurred, and Messy N Chic.

Arc de Triumph

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Impres­sion­ist Painter Edgar Degas Takes a Stroll in Paris, 1915

Rare Film of Sculp­tor Auguste Rodin Work­ing at His Stu­dio in Paris (1915)

Paris Through Pen­tax: Short Film Lets You See a Great City Through a Dif­fer­ent Lens

The First Col­or Por­trait of Leo Tol­stoy, and Oth­er Amaz­ing Col­or Pho­tos of Czarist Rus­sia (1908)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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